Thursday, August 20, 2009

Defining the Continuum from here to Post-Carbon Sustainability

To define a continuum or path of transition from today to life in the post-carbon world it is necessary to start with a reasonably clear vision of that post carbon world. Largely this vision has to be local, or at least regional, centered on the area in which you live or will live at that time.

It is always awkward forecasting the future. There are so many variables. But it is easier, in my mind, to predict what life will be like in that post-carbon world than at any point during the transition. If you can start with a clear vision of the destination you are in a better position to define your own transition path.

What will the post-carbon world look like? Here are just fifteen examples of the changes you will see in society as we slide down the energy-decline slope.

* The focus of life will be very much local, not the global focus of today. Sustainability will mean local self-sufficiency and self-reliance, either individually or as a community.
* Consumerism will be dead, dead, dead. The keyword will have become need, not want. Gone with consumerism will be the vast advertising industry that fuels consumerism today.
* Society will clearly not be dominated by the automobile. Electric cars may hang on for a while, as might cars running on locally-produced bio-diesel. The ultimate demise of the automobile will be, however, not a lack of fuel to run them but the inability to maintain the automobile manufacturing industry, an industry today based on planned obsolescence. Yes, it would be possible to make durable, rugged cars that would last decades, perhaps a century or more. But that would entail a complete overhaul of the industry mindset.
* Globalization will have died well before we enter the post-carbon world. In fact it is very much in the process of unwinding now. The massive fuel demands of large-scale trans-oceanic transport and the tremendous raw material demands of the ship-building industry simply are not going to be feasible in a world of net declining resources.
* Communities will produce all, or almost all, of their own food. If they trade it will likely be with other nearby communities but this will likely be limited to crisis times such as after crop failures.
* Travel will not be what it is today. Airlines will be a thing of the past, unless they convert to blimps and hot air balloons. Before that the industry will likely survive for a while as a luxury for the monied elite. Trans-oceanic shipping will be extremely limited, unless it reverts to sail but even then would be limited. Possibly, and hopefully, the once expansive railway system and services will be rebuilt in time but that is going to require a government commitment which, at the moment, seems very unlikely. The concept of travelling for vacation will probably disappear over time. The current highway systems will initially fall into disrepair and ultimately be abandoned to be reclaimed by nature. Some of the routes they followed may still be used, on horseback and on foot, since many of the early highways followed routes that were already well in use before that. People in cold climates will not travel south to escape winter but will, in fact, be very travel restricted by that winter weather.
* The manufacturing industry, if it survives, will be seriously downsized and refocused on society's needs, not the competitive and advertising-stimulated wants of today.
* Manufacturing processes will likely be reverse engineered so that production can be dispersed to regional areas where they will serve a discrete regional market.
* Housing will change dramatically, downsizing from the ubiquitous McMansions of today to the small, energy-efficient, cozy cottages and bungalows that were prevalent in our parents' time.
* Classical, perpetual-growth economics will have died a painful death. It is, indeed, in the process of dying now, real growth having already died years ago with the appearance of growth being propped up by a myriad of smoke-and-mirrors financial instruments. The wheels fell off in 2008 with the $147 dollar price for oil. Economists, if money is to continue as the lifeblood of human society, will have to find ways for that society to survive within a no-growth economy.
* The face of retail will change dramatically. Malls will be dead. A tremendous shake-out of the retail sector will have major casualties. What retail survives will mostly move into residential areas, close to the customer, and be run out of the home, not separate rental or owned space.
* The village or neighbourhood open-air market will become the primary source of commerce. Much of the commercial business will be for repair, maintenance, refit, mend, fix as the throw-away society dies.
* Many people assume the very useful internet will survive the decline in oil. It won't. The internet is cheap-energy- and technology-intensive. Cheap energy is even now disappearing as costs go up and available resources decline. And to think the computer manufacturing industry will survive the end of cheap energy is wishful thinking in the extreme. So the internet will not survive the end of cheap energy. Your ability to have and use a computer in any form in a post-carbon world will depend on your personal ability to fix, maintain and program it yourself, and your ability to personally or communally produce the energy to run it.
* Large cities with their multi-million populations and their rings of suburbs will not survive the end of cheap energy in their present form. They cannot be made food self-sufficient and do not have the internal resources to become self-reliant. They are critically dependent on massive infrastructure that is now expensive to maintain and, in the future, impossible to maintain. Cities in pre-industrial times generally did not exceed a million population (and those were rare), were surrounded by rich farmland (now covered by suburbs), depended on a large slave population (currently replaced by energy slaves), and generally had good water access for moving trade and commodities by sail and barge (now replaced by energy-intensive rail, trucking, ship and air).
* Medicine will become far less ubiquitous and far less technology intensive. That technology requires a thriving manufacturing industry that exists only because of cheap energy. And both the manufacture and use of that equipment consumes a great deal of energy. Every advance in technology has, in my opinion, reduced the ability and willingness of doctors to make a patient diagnosis with medical skills alone. This has been largely necessitated by our litigation-prone society.

How will you chart your course to sustainability through that minefield? It won't be easy because it depends so much on timing. The first thing that you must do, if you are to be successful, is keep a close eye on the news. The signs will be there but you have to develop a very active and effective bullshit filter. You will have to be able to read between the lines. You have to use something other than the corporate dominated and controlled mainstream media to get at the truth behind what that mainstream media is telling you. Use sources like the internet, alternative newspapers, independent TV and radio.

If you wait for the mainstream media to present a clear and honest picture, like those who were surprised at the financial downturn, it will be too late. And, most importantly, you have to follow the news regularly, even keep notes, in order to spot the trends that are developing. The mainstream media are not going to suddenly one day run a headline that says we've run out of cheap oil - all that's left is shale and tar sands. What they will do instead is probably barrage you with stories about the marvellous new technologies that allow us to extract oil from shale and how that technology will extend the oil age by hundreds of years.

Fair warning will be available but you will have to search for it, dig for it, find sources that you trust and rely on them. Seeing, recognizing and accepting those warnings should, in most cases, give you enough chance to avoid the worst. It is, in my opinion, a terrible waste of your energy trying to convince others what is coming. Those who rely exclusively on the mainstream media will laugh at you and call you a doomer until the shit hits the fan. Then they will simply avoid you.

Good luck and enjoy the trip!

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